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Healing Shame Through Self-Affirmation

Since about 1980, there has been a phenomenal interest in and writing about shame, a topic that had received little prior attention.

We have more understanding of the results of childhood neglect and abuse, and how that relates to addiction, the self’s inner relationship with the self, and the significance of shame. We now have greater understanding of the role shame plays in all inter-relationships, from how to be at peace with ourselves to how to have fulfilling relationships with others. Self-esteem, identity, and intimacy are all important areas in the personality that are influenced by the experience of shame.

Inherent in being human is a need to have meaning in our lives, to have a sense of belonging with others, and to feel valued. We want to feel special in some way, to feel useful, and to matter to others. Yet, there are times when a sense of doubt creeps into our consciousness. Some event causes an awareness of exposure resulting in self-consciousness. We begin to question our adequacy or our very worth as a human being. A little inner voice whispers despair. It can come in so many ways: “I’m impossible to love.” “I can’t do anything right.” “I’m a failure at relationships.” “I’m worthless.” When we doubt ourselves in this way, we somehow feel we are to blame for the situation-that it has something to do with our failure as a human being. Where one day we stand tall and confident, we feel an inner pain saying we are simply not enough. Therefore, there is nothing that can be done about it. This is shame.

Sylvan Tompkins (The Many Faces of Shame, New York: Guilford Press, 1987) defines shame as a normal feeling/affect that is an inevitable experience because we are human. To feel shame is to feel seen in a woefully diminished way. This feeling of exposure and self-consciousness is an essential aspect of shame. Whether or not all eyes are on us or only our own, we may feel an urgent need to escape, hide, or become invisible. Tompkins says that this normal human affect/feeling, inherent to our humanness, is to be experienced and released. The experience of shame is no less essential to our humanness than the experience of joy, anger, or sadness.

However, shame can unfortunately become bound to the identity through several crucial phases of human development (Kaufman, Gershen PhD, Shame, The Power of Caring, Schenkman Books, Inc. Third Edition, 1992). This article explores the difference between shame the affect/feeling, and how the shame bound identity is created. The identity can become bound to shame through the relationship of the parent to the child’s needs, feelings, or drives.

One of the most important roles parents play in child rearing is to be a positive/affirming mirror for feelings, needs, and drives. In each stage of development, as the child expresses himself, a parent can mirror in positive/affirming or negative/shaming ways. The key to the development of a self-affirming identity lies in these early relationships.

In infancy (pre-verbal development), the only way to affirm is to make the child feel secure by touch. The unavailable parent (i.e. through anger, depression, clueless from the effects of substance abuse, etc.) can provide negative mirroring by not touching the child. A bridge of trust is developed by the parents’ ability to meet and affirm the child. A betrayal of trust then occurs when these intrinsic human needs, feelings, and drives are not affirmed, severing the interpersonal bridge between the parent and the child.

In early childhood, a parent can provide negative mirroring by being contemptuous of the child or by withdrawing love as punishment. During this developmental phase, fear that the parent will leave if the child is not good enough (abandonment fear) can later cause shame to be experienced in perceived abandonment.

In later childhood, if a parent needs to have the child become an extension of themselves (enmeshment) this may cause the child to take responsibility for the parent’s comfort, feeling worthless (shame) when it cannot be accomplished. Comparing the child to other children (usually by a parent who is struggling with their own shame) can induce shame by mirroring to the child that they always come up short in the comparison.

During adolescence, the potential for the disruptive consequences of shame is greater due to the heightened self-consciousness during this crucial developmental period. This is the most self-conscious developmental phase that we face during our life span. The peer group carries a great importance during this time because of the need to identify. The adolescent needs much stability and support from parents and other significant adults to navigate all the challenges and changes during this time.

We must not ignore the impact of culture on children. Ours is a shame-based society. Shame is often induced as a result of being different. We are told that to be adequate, we must be popular and confirm. However, adequacy also requires achievement, thereby expecting us to compete for success, be independent and self sufficient while conforming, and being popular.

Going through any developmental phase alone due to family physical or mental illness, financial problems, family substance abuse, negligent, physical/emotional/sexual abuse can set up a pattern of facing all of life’s turbulence alone; believing that the need for support and affirmation is somehow wrong or bad, predisposing us to seek comfort in ways in which we don’t have to acknowledge our human needs.

Restoring the interpersonal bridge is the healing process itself. Parents can learn to own their shame and to communicate to their children that they are not to blame. The healing process (restoring the interpersonal bridge) can also happen later in life with a friend, spouse, or therapist.

It is through the natural human desire to identify with others, to belong to something greater than ourselves, that we learn to be a person. Through identification, we know rootedness and this starts in our families.

Through observational learning, the parent allows the child to identify with him (through mirroring). If this identification is shaming, we identify ourselves as shameful beings. If this identification is affirming, we identify and accept ourselves as OK in our human being-ness.

Another innately human process in forming our identity is through internalization. We internalize what our parent mirrors back to us. If the internalized image of the parent is positive, we learn to self affirm when we experience feelings, needs, or drives. When the internalized image of the parent is negative, we take over the role of the parent internally, and shame ourselves when we experience what we now consider to be unacceptable needs, feelings, or drives.

Thus, through identification with the parent and internalization of the parents’ view of us, the relationship of the self with the self is developed. This is identity. Identity is either a self-affirming identity, or a shaming one.

Shame prevents the development of ways to meet normal needs. Normal needs, as defined by Kaufman are:

1. Relationship: The child comes to feel that he is wanted and special. Rejection of a child can be overt or covert. The child may be the wrong gender or perhaps the parent did not want a child. The child, in these circumstances, will feel blamed. It is important that the parent is there for the child, not vice versa.

2. Touching/Holding: This normal biological need lays the groundwork for later developing a secure, self-affirming identity.

3. Identification: The need to identify is a strong biological need. Identification carries the essence of connectedness and rootedness.

4. Differentiation: This need must be supported through each developmental phase and it starts as soon as the child becomes mobile. To allow for and support good skills for separation is to teach the child how to handle life on life’s terms. Separation is necessary to feel mastery over life. Absolutely the only way to individualize is through identification and differentiation. Overprotective or over possessive parents can greatly hinder the need to differentiate, by shaming the process. “You must think you’re better than us.”

5. Nurture: This is the need to know that our love is good and that our love is acceptable.

6. Affirmation: This is crucial to the avoidance of people pleasing later in life. Through having this need met, the child can slowly, over time, decide what values and truths have importance.

We identify with what we see and hear from our earliest relationships with our parents. If the child identifies with a negative parental view, shame becomes internalized and the original needs, feelings, and drives become less and less conscious. Shame is no longer just a feeling/affect, but becomes basic to the sense of identity. Expressions of internalized shame include feelings of inadequacy, rejection, or self-doubt; feeling guilt-ridden or unlovable; and pervasive loneliness.

At this point, shame can happen autonomously, in isolation, outside of a relationship with others. A triggering event (i.e. feeling rebuffed, critical remark from a friend, not being sought after) causes the experience of feeling overcome with shame. This sensation become paralyzing, feeling like a tailspin or snowball effect where many other previous shameful precipitating events are relived. The little inner voice begins to express despair with statements like : “How could you have been so stupid to think that you belong in that group.” “You know you’re not attractive enough for someone to notice.” (Shame spiral)

The experience of this shame spiral is very painful. In fact, people will do almost anything to avoid the experience of the feeling. Later in life, we may develop strategies to avoid the experience of shame. Briefly, I will describe several of these defense strategies.

1. Rage: Keeps other people away.

2. Contempt: Distances self from others by elevating the self above others.

3. Striving for power: Attempts to compensate for defectiveness by having power over others.

4. Striving for perfection: Protects against vulnerability to shame. Becoming perfect is seen as less painful than experiencing shame, but is self limited and doomed to failure.

5. Transfer of blame: If fault is in others, it can’t be in ourselves.

6. Internal withdrawal: Shame can be avoided by avoiding others.

The goal of treatment is to enable the client to work through a core belief of not being good enough as a person, and to support emergence from an identity infused with shame, doubt and fear.

The therapeutic relationship is an instrument in the healing process, providing an environment where trust and self-discovery can occur. Creating an environment where the original source of the shame can be revealed and acknowledged allows for differentiation of the shame, owning and integration of the original needs, feelings, and drives. I have found at this point in therapy, managing shame spirals by implementation of new coping skills is especially useful.

Once the client is able to accept the unalterable fact that he can never go back and make up for past unmet needs, feelings, and drives, he is freed to live life from the present onward. This allows for the creation of more equal, affirming, and satisfying adult relationships as opposed to recreating relationships where the original shame is experienced over and over again.

The skills to affirm and nurture the self are necessary. Two tools I have found essential to the client’s continued progress outside of therapy sessions are the use of affirmation cards and CDs combining the use of relaxation with affirmations.

There is usually a significant amount of inner conflict associated with learning and incorporating better care of the self. I use guided imagery with affirmations relating to different kinds of addictions that are a result of traumatic parenting. I use the affirmation cards as a guide to mediation, reflection, and journaling in between sessions and have found them useful in keeping the healing process moving.

– By Kelly Coutee, LPC, LMFT, MA, RN

Kelly Couteé is a psychotherapist specializing in addiction treatment and trauma related issues and a therapist at CRT Counseling in Dallas, Texas. Visit www.crtcounseling.com

This article, slightly condensed for space limitations, was first printed in the Santé Center for Healing newsletter, Volume III, issues II, III. For additional information regarding Santé Center for Healing, please visit www.santecenter.com.

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